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January 12, 2012

The Keeper Reaper

Starting Pitchers for 1/12/12

by Mike Petriello

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As I fight off the temptation to discuss whether Jack Morris is a keeper in shallow leagues…

Paul Maholm | Chicago Cubs
Sh
allow: NO
Medium:
NO
Deep: NO
NL-only:
 NO
Super Deep:
NO 

For a pitcher most believed would get multiple years somewhere, Chicago looks like they may have picked up a nice bargain in signing Maholm for just one year and $4.75 million earlier this week. When you consider that arguably inferior pitchers like Bruce Chen, Aaron Harang, and Chris Capuano all picked up two guaranteed years, the Cubs may be in line for a decent return at little cost. Maholm’s no superstar, but his FIP has landed between 3.78 and 4.18 in each of the last four years, which is more than usable at the back of a big-league rotation–particularly if you ignore the 15-29 record he’s generated over the last two years in front of a dreadful Pirates club.

What about a fantasy squad, though? Maholm is consistently above-average in terms of limiting home runs thanks to his groundballing ways, and other than last season’s bout with a shoulder strain, he’s been extremely durable dating back to his first full season in 2006. (According to Maholm himself, he was cleared to begin full workouts back in October.) Unfortunately, with a fastball that maxes out around 87 miles per hour these days and little ability to miss bats, Maholm is beginning to resemble the stereotypical “soft-tossing lefty”. Among the 94 pitchers who qualified last year, Maholm’s strikeout rate of 5.38 was in the bottom 20, and that’s not going to get you too far in your fantasy league. It’s not even a slam dunk that his unfair win total will improve, because while he may be leaving a terrible Pirates club that finished in the bottom third of defensive efficiency, he’s merely joining a Cubs team that had almost the same record and finished right next to Pittsburgh in the defensive standings. (It should be noted that the Chicago infield is completely in flux around Starling Castro, though I doubt you’ll find too many people who prefer Bryan LaHair’s defense to Carlos Pena’s.)

Maholm’s not the worst idea in the world to fill out the bottom of your roster, since he’ll provide innings without killing you, but he’s also not going to be the one to propel you to a championship.

Zack Greinke | Milwaukee Brewers
Sh
allow: YES
Medium:
YES
Deep: YES
NL-only:
 YES
Super Deep:
YES

I shouldn’t need to tell you that Zack Greinke is awesome, yet while poking around some ADP sites, he’s often going in the Tim Hudson / Josh Johnson / Ted Lilly range. Considering Johnson’s health, the advancing age of Hudson and Lilly, and how good Greinke really was last year, that seems ludicrous to me.

Of course, it’s no secret why some are undervaluing Greinke. After missing the first month of the season due to broken ribs sustained in an offseason basketball game, Greinke got off to a bit of a rusty start, allowing five or more earned runs three times in his first 11 starts. That inflated his ERA to the point where he didn’t get it back below five until his first start after the All-Star Break on July 16, by which point everyone had had a full half-season of seeing that ugly number on their televisions and saying, “wow, Greinke is terrible.” (That could lead into a far longer discussion of people placing far too much importance on first impressions because of how it superficially affects the stat line during the season, or what Dodger fans like myself like to refer to as “the Rod Barajas effect”.)

Most of us knew better, though, because after that July 16 start he was sporting an insane 107/18 K/BB, which helped him put up an MLB-best 10.54 K/9 mark for the season, along with a top-ten FIP of 2.98.Though Greinke was able to pull that ERA down in the second half to a final tally of 3.83–largely helped by the normalization of his completely unsustainable first-half BABIP, north of .350–that’s not an ERA that wins you a lot of support on the surface.

All of this is really just a long way of saying that Greinke is great, and as he enters his age-28 season and coming off a career-best strikeout rate in the friendlier league, there’s little reason to think that he won’t perform again—assuming of course, he stays off the basketball court. If there’s any concern here, it’s that the Brewers are likely to be without Ryan Braun for the first 50 games and Prince Fielder for the full 162, possibly costing Greinke a win or two thanks to decreased run support. If that plus his ERA makes him undervalued in your league, all the better for you.

Rick Porcello | Detroit Tigers
Sh
allow: NO
Medium:
NO
Deep: NO
AL-only:
 NO
Super Deep:
NO 

This is what BP had to say about Porcello in last year’s annual:

Youth provides the opportunity for growth, not a guarantee of it, and entering his third year in the Tigers rotation it’s hard to measure much growth in Porcello. When drafted, the dream was that he might become Justin Verlander, overpowering batters with an upper-90s fastball. When he proved to be more of a worm-killer in the minors, the ideal became Brandon Webb. Now, after two full seasons with a sub-par strikeout rate, is he really just Jon Garland? Porcello induced the same number of swinging strikes last year as Aaron Cook, and while many point to improvement after his brief mid-season demotion, upping his strikeout rate from 4.22 to 4.97 per nine innings had best be the first step of a journey, not the destination. Ground balls may be more democratic, but Porcello needs to act more like a dictator on the mound or he’ll become just another mid-rotation journeyman.

If you’re looking for growth, I’m not sure he provided it, since in 2011 Porcello upped that strikeout rate all the way to a middling 5.14 mark. (If you’re more of a “swinging strikes” person, finishing directly behind noted fireballers Jeremy Guthrie, Livan Hernandez, and Mark Buehrle isn’t exactly encouraging, either.) His season high for strikeouts in a game was a mere seven, and even at that, he managed to get to that modest number just once. As you can see, his velocity isn’t exactly trending in the right direction either.

Now all that being said, Porcello only turned 23 about two weeks ago, and he’s already racked up over 500 major league innings along with 38 victories (yes, I’m referencing wins, but only because this is a fantasy column. I haven’t turned to the dark side). With success like that at such a young age, and particularly with someone who came with the glowing reports that Porcello did, it’s hard to want to write him off so soon; it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see that he’s got another level left in him. But until he proves he’s more than a pitch-to-contact fourth starter, he’s not going to be very valuable in fantasy leagues. Let someone else take that risk.

Ryan Dempster | Chicago Cubs
Sh
allow: NO
Medium:
NO
Deep: NO
NL-only:
 NO
Super Deep:
BORDERLINE

You’d be hard-pressed, I think, to find a pitcher who had seasons more similar than Ryan Dempster did in 2010 and 2011.

 

K/9

BB/9

K/BB

HR/9

FIP

2010

8.7

3.6

2.42

1.0

3.99

2011

8.5

3.6

2.33

1.0

3.91

Despite that essentially identical performance, however, Dempster slid from 15-12, 3.85 in 2010 to 10-14, 4.80 last season. So what happened? Pitching for a terrible Cubs squad surely didn’t help, but nor did posting a career worst .324 BABIP. Now, we know enough about BABIP that we can’t simply say, “oh, it was a fluke, it’ll regress.” Usually it does, but not always, and in Dempster’s case, he’ll be 35 next year, so it’s worth wondering if he’s just at the point where his pitches are becoming more hittable.

At first glance, it seems like there might be something to that. Dempster’s swinging strike percentage, an arguably more accurate indicator of strikeout skill, has declined in each of his four years as a Chicago starter, while his velocity declined by just a tick to 90.3 MPH this season—the lowest he has had in years. While those aren’t good signs, I’m not ready to write him off just yet. For one thing, Dempster’s K/9 marks of the last two years are the two best he’s ever had as a starter and even better than those he put up in three of his four years pitching out of the bullpen. Even last year’s mark was good enough for a top-20 ranking in baseball, ahead of Roy Halladay, Madison Bumgarner, and C.J. Wilson, among others, and so even if he regresses just a bit in that department, he’d still provide plenty of value. Besides, if his BABIP does drop back to normal levels, his ERA should slide down along with it. Dempster is by no means an elite starter, but in deeper leagues where strikeouts are ever more valuable, he might be worth hanging onto if it can be done cheaply.

Mike Petriello is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Mike's other articles. You can contact Mike by clicking here

Related Content:  Rick Porcello

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